Cooperrider, K., Marghetis, T., and Núñez, R. (2017). Where does the Ordered Line Come From? Evidence From a Culture of Papua New Guinea. Psychological Science.
Number lines, calendars, and measuring sticks all represent order along some dimension (e.g., magnitude) as position on a line. In high-literacy, industrialized societies, this principle of spatial organization—linear order—is a fixture of visual culture and everyday cognition. But what are the principle’s origins, and how did it become such a fixture? Three studies investigated intuitions about linear order in the Yupno, members of a culture of Papua New Guinea that lacks conventional representations involving ordered lines, and in U.S. undergraduates. Presented with cards representing differing sizes and numerosities, both groups arranged them using linear order or sometimes spatial grouping, a competing principle. But whereas the U.S. participants produced ordered lines in all tasks, strongly favoring a left-to-right format, the Yupno produced them less consistently, and with variable orientations. Conventional linear representations are thus not necessary to spark the intuition of linear order—which may have other experiential sources—but they nonetheless regiment when and how the principle is used.